My childhood was fraught with wonderful games. I came into gaming when consoles like the PlayStation were really kicking off in the 90s, and those wondrous years were filled with some of the most defining games of any century. Without a doubt, one of those games was Final Fantasy VIII – a title that even twenty-years on following its initial release still manages to blow me away.
Without getting into the age-old argument of which Final Fantasy from that era was the best (Final Fantasy VII, anyone else is a liar), I can honestly say that I went positively giddy when Square Enix announced that Final Fantasy VIII was being remastered – I GENUINELY nearly passed out when I saw the first trailer for the Final Fantasy VII Remake drop so you can imagine how excited I get when anything remotely Final Fantasy comes knocking. Now the reason I’m getting this out of my system is to be honest: I love Final Fantasy in all its forms but this review will be unbiased, based on how well Final Fantasy VIII has aged regardless of how much I loved it before.
Final Fantasy VIII was a major step up for Squaresoft- I mean, Square Enix, from Final Fantasy VII; the music quality and the visual fidelity both improved and it was a testament at the time to what Square Enix was capable of delivering as (arguably) the titan provider of the traditional JRPG (something I believe that they still are now). In the first minutes of playing, as soon as you press that ‘New Game’ button, you’re met with the haunting but powerful music of ‘Liberi Fatali’. Its ability to send the hairs on my neck forthright is still there and it’s a great start to the adventure that helps get you feeling really pumped up.
For those that don’t know, you begin this Final Fantasy adventure as Squall Leonhart: a moody and pessimistic teenager who doesn’t like social interaction and feels like he doesn’t need anyone to get by. Kind of sounds like how I was as a teen, to be honest. You’re a part of an organisation known as Garden, and Squall attends Balamb Garden – a school for the training of mercenaries known as SeeDs. The opening hours consist of controlling Squall and a cast of other memorable party members through his SeeD entrance exam, and this alone gets the game off to an amazing start. Without going into the story too much, what follows that is an absolute fun-fuelled romp through a beautifully written narrative that is full to the brim with a cast of characters that will stick with you long after playing.
To talk about areas that will be relevant to newcomers to Final Fantasy VIII, battles consist of three party members that are each equipped with a set of four commands that you can choose dependent on the Guardian Force they are using. Guardian Forces, or GFs, are essentially the summons of Final Fantasy VIII (they tend to be called something different in every game, but the concept is more or less the same). You can use the Junction system to attach a GF to a character, which then opens up individual abilities dependent on the GF, such as the ability to junction magic to particular stats to increase them, to be able to add status attacks, or to refine items into more useful counterparts. The system has a wonderful amount of depth, and I strongly urge anyone to give Final Fantasy VIII a look based on this alone.
Magic has changed from other Final Fantasy outings, in the sense that it uses the Draw system. This means that magic isn’t conventionally learned, but you must actually draw it from enemies or draw points scattered around the world. This will then allow you to cast it against enemies, or in a more valuable fashion, junction to your stats to increase them. For the newcomers, here’s a pro tip: you might even find that magic isn’t the only thing you can draw in certain encounters…
One of the most defining features, and the final thing I’ll cover before moving onto the quality of the remaster, is Triple Triad. My god, I dread to think about the amount of hours I’ve spent collecting cards and playing card game after card game… Now you may be thinking, Kyle, why did you do that? And I’ll tell you: Triple Triad is as great as it is simplistic. You have cards with four-sides, each side has value and it’s a simple premise of 1-A. A is the highest, 1 lowest. The aim of the game is to place cards down on a 3×3 grid and capture your opponent’s card by utilising the higher values of your own. Now this is basic enough, but there are ‘rules’ in each region of the world which define and change the strategy of the game. Again, I don’t want to talk too much, because it’s something that must be experienced. Everybody loves Gwent in The Witcher, but everyone also forgets the Triple Triad was one of the best iterations of a trading card game in any game before it.
So, as part of the remaster, Final Fantasy VIII got a massive overhaul on the graphical front. Character and environment models have all seen an overhaul and it is truly beautiful; I can finally see the characters in glorious HD quality for the first time without having to imagine from Kingdom Hearts what they MIGHT have looked like. Also, FMVs have been improved to take out the graininess and are definitively more defined than they ever were before. Now, not everything has been changed for obvious technical limitations reasons. Static backgrounds (which existed in Final Fantasy VII through Final Fantasy IX) are largely unchanged. You can tell they have been tweaked a little, but there’s only so much that can be done. It can sometimes be a little distracting, but nothing the makes the experience any less satisfying.
The models of the characters themselves have been morphed into more anatomically pleasing forms and overall, it feels like a lot of work has gone into refining and redefining what can be changed as part of the remaster. You must remember, unlike Final Fantasy VII which is getting a full remake, this is building on a considerably older engine.
Also added to the console release is the ability to speed up the game by x3, set no encounters (which I’d argue isn’t needed as this was already possible in the game through certain GF abilities) and battles boosts (automatic HP restoration, instant limit breaks and instant actions). These have been seen in other remastered releases of the series too, so it’s nothing new here. You can choose to use them to make the game a little faster, or you can choose not to use them. I would suggest the latter: the beauty of this game was the tactical fun of the battles, so eliminating the challenge with these boosts dampens the experience. It’s handy for the old-timers to use if you want a particularly quick jaunt through the game, but having notched at least eight completions under my belt over the years (seriously), you can take it from me that this is a masterclass in RPGs that needs to be played the way it was initially intended.
So, how does it hold up, you ask? No, this isn’t Final Fantasy XV with its wonderful characterisation of emotions on Noctis’ face. And no, it doesn’t have the wonder-inducing vistas of the likes of modern RPGs such as The Witcher. I can tell you what it does have: one of the best written stories in RPGs with a cast of memorable characters that will incite emotions in you that you didn’t even know you had. It has all the technicality of a well-crafted masterpiece and mechanics that will keep you entertained for hours, something which a lot of RPGs don’t manage to offer these days. And what this remastered form of the game now has is a graphical overhaul that enhances the experience to bring it more in line with modern game expectations. For those who have had the pleasure of playing this game, you have something great to come back for, and for those who haven’t yet experienced the journey as Squall… well… you’re in for a treat.
There’s a reason that Final Fantasy VIII was remastered, and that’s because it was a masterpiece in its own time that many people loved. You can add me to that list of people too, as I firmly believe that this is one of Square Enix’s finer outings in a long history of RPG excellence.
With its updated and beautifully rendered new character models and environments, its enhanced FMVs, and added game features, you can be sure that whether this a return to a classic or a new beginning in the world of Final Fantasy VIII, it’ll be a defining experience that will stick with you for years to come.
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform(s): PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC